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Ergonomic Issues

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Do you realise that your office is slowly killing you? OK, that might be a slightly exaggerated statement - even if the colleague across the cubicle from you is driving you nuts with his constant chattering to his mates/girlfriend/mother while you're actually trying to get some work done. What's not an exaggeration is that workers are spending more and more of their time sat, sedentary, at a desk as they stare at a computer screen doing endlessly repetitive tasks - and that this isn't a healthy situation to be in.

You might expect construction or powerline maintenance to be some of the more dangerous jobs around, but in terms of sheer numbers Brits are being slowly annihilated by desk-based ills. Dr Alan Hedge of Cornell University reckons that the risk of musculoskeletal problems increases with as little as one hour per day of computer usage, and the risk to someone working more than four hours a day on a computer is fully nine times greater. Not only that, but repetitive motion generally accounts for more absences from work than assaults, equipment damage, exposure to harmful substances and slips and falls put together!

Humans weren't meant to sit around on their butts all day, but the information revolution has made most of us desk jockeys. As such, a whole new industry has sprung up with the promise of keeping us fit and healthy as we type our TPS reports (using the new cover sheets of course - ed.). Whether its ergonomic desk chairs, non-reflective desk surfaces, anti-glare monitors or banana shaped keyboards, ‘ergonomic' is almost as big a bandwagon as ‘green'. It goes without saying, then, that not everything is always as it seems.

And while computer users might think ‘ergonomic' but then think ‘expensive', it can be more costly not to invest. In 2002, work related muscular-skeletal problems accounted for 50 per cent of all lost work days - taking a chunk out of productivity to the tune of $61.2bn a year in the United States alone.
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Ergonomics, you see, is not a product but a process. A chair will never in itself be ergonomic, since what is comfortable and supportive for one person will be uncomfortable and lumpy for another. People are diverse - we are all different heights, weights and widths and we all have slightly different jobs to do. Ergonomics, therefore, is the process of matching equipment to people and equipped people to work situations. In an ideal world, every worker would have a desk and chair individually picked out, with a workstation individually configured to meet his or her needs. Of course, corporate economics make that a lofty and almost certainly unattainable goal. There are, however, some basic rules and facts that you should take into account when setting up a workspace and we will look at these here.

What are we up against? It is always best to know thy enemy, and sitting for long periods of time causes a multitude of problems. It can increase pressure on the intervertebral discs, the spongy bits between your spine. Contrary to what you might think, sitting is also hard on the feet and legs (not to mention the butt), as the constant pressure keeps your muscles twitching. Gravity tends to pool blood in the legs and feet, and this means a sloth-like return for blood to the heart, which in turn can cause a rather more sloth-like demeanor. Staring at a screen can cause eyestrain, and a poorly lit workspace can cause dizziness and, long term, fry your eyesight. If you want to shoot the sluggishness, here are just a few ways you can improve life at your desk.
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